Using celebrity likenesses in comic strips

I’m not asking for legal advice, but I’d like input from folks here who are hip to trademark, copyright, and libel law.

Suppose I drew a comic strip that regularly involved stars of old movies as characters. For instance, my main character might fantasize that he’s walked into Rick’s Café Américain and sidle up to the bar for some comical interaction with Bogie.

Would I be opening myself to legal hot water? The only comic strip I can think of that regularly involved celebs was John Darling, but I feel our society has grown more litigious in the last 20 years. Would it be any better if I made the characters recognizable, but gave them parody names, in the style of Mad Magazine?

It happens in political cartoons all the time. If they are public figures, what’s the difference? (…he asks naively, perhaps…)

I think it falls under parodic fair use but I bet a proper copyright expert will be along in a minute to sort it out for you.

Political figures are different from celebrities. You can do almost anything with political figures. California has a unique law that protects celebrity likenesses, even of dead celebrities.

You used to be safe if you used only dead celebrities. Now I’m not sure. The case law on it is still new and I wouldn’t pretend I understood exactly what you can or can’t do under that law. And I believe it only covers those who register with the state.

Parody is still almost always considered fair play, but the definition of what parody is, while loosely defined by the courts, will never be an absolute.

Berke Breathed used to regularly use celebrity parodies in Bloom County - often using modified photocopies of the celebrities (such as Brooke Shields and Jeane Kirkpatrick). I think that as long as it is very clear that it’s parody it shouldn’t be a problem.

I’m not a big fan of his Opus strip, but today’s where George Bush is singing and dancing about Patraeus to the tune of “Maria” is pretty good.

Humphrey Bogart and other celebrities are trademarked, but I guess it’s okay as parody, seeing as you’re not actually making money off of his image. There are tons of Elvis parodies out there, but I far as I know, Elvis Presley Enterprises- which holds the trademark on Elvis and his name- hasn’t sued over any of them.

Doonesbury has portrayed Hunter S. Thompson as Uncle Duke for the last 30 some odd years. Thompson wasn’t too pleased initally, but there didn’t seem like there was much recourse for him either.

Well, I haven’t been following Pearls Before Swine as much as I used to, but a recent strip had pig (?) going to rehab where he met Britney Spears right after her hair shaving incident IIRC.

He did that before the California law was passed. However, I agree that his use was clearly parody.

Duke was clearly based on Thompson, but was never a direct likeness. That’s the best route to take.

Just because you use a celebrity in a comic strip does not legally imply that your use is parody. That has to be clear from context.

How did Berke Breathed get away with Mortimer Mouse, a recurring character and brother to Mickey?